Sometimes it’s the snippets that you see or hear in Test week which resonate and the most impressive thing that has come out of the England camp lately has been Jamie George telling the players at the end of training sessions, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes”. That gets me so excited about this new-look England team.
It is cause for excitement because it tells me that players are trying things in training. Whether it’s an offload, or an extra pass or just scanning and playing that little bit more instinctively. The perception is that England have been too inhibited or too rigid in an attacking sense of late but to hear Jamie’s statement to the squad fills me with optimism that we will see some of their attacking potential.
I look at the team selected and it’s a team built to run. With the absences of Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence there is perhaps a lack of punch in the backline – that would be more of a concern against other teams – but England have a coaching staff that is smart enough to come up with a game plan that suits their players. They won’t be perfect – anyone expecting England to be perfect in the first week has overblown expectations – but I want to judge England on their intent, which is hopefully to play to space that little bit more. That can be with the boot by the way – kicking is a big part of their identity – but I would love to see them turn the dial in an attacking sense and bring that extra sense of freedom within their structures to enable them to fulfil their potential.
There are several types of excitement. There are five new caps, new faces, new players, thoughts about what they can achieve and where they can go in their careers. That’s all teamsheet based, selection based. I think the greatest excitement for me is, how are England going to play. It’s 18C in Rome, it couldn’t be set up any better for England. They have Italy up first, they finished bottom last time; Wales next, they finished fifth, so it’s the ideal start in a tournament where momentum is in everyone’s thinking.
It has not been an easy week for England with Marcus Smith ruled out and Alex Mitchell unable to train for large parts of it. Smith has been flying for Harlequins, demonstrating what has probably been his best form. It is not only the magic moments he provides, his control and management have been exceptional. He’s really matured on the back of what would have been a good experience for him at the World Cup. It’s a blow for him and it’s a blow for Steve Borthwick because I’m confident he would have been the first choice for this competition.
Having said that, we are blessed to have Fin Smith and the experience of George Ford. By all accounts Fin Smith came into camp during the last Six Nations and trained the house down. Anyone who watched him at Thomond Park against Munster will have seen what a cool head he has got and what a skill set he possesses. I can’t wait to see him off the bench. Ethan Roots is another eye-catching debutant – he’s a big boy, a big banger – and I’m keen to see what sort of physicality he can introduce. And Immanuel Feyi-Waboso off the bench, too. If Italy are flagging in the last 20 minutes he could really turn it on.
I’m really pleased to hear England players talking about how quickly they have gelled and come together at the start of the campaign because it has been a problem for them in the past. They have lost their opening Six Nations match in each of the past four years which means they have had to try to build into the championship in round two and that brings extra pressure. The fact that a number of them spent five months together in camp last year will be a big part of that. Admittedly, it’s the same for all six nations but for England, who seem to struggle to flick the switch from club to country more than most, it could be significant.
That said, Italy will fancy themselves in game week one. I believe that there is extra pressure on Italy to get a win in this Six Nations. They were desperately unlucky last year, coming close against France, Scotland and Wales. But against the backdrop of the World Cup, Portugal in particular and other nations outside the Top 10 in the rankings, have shown that there is quality out there.
If Italy have an unsuccessful Six Nations, that pressure is going to increase. It does feel like another big tournament for them but I’m excited to see what they’re about under a new coaching staff.